What’s it about? Teen idol Fuka has quit the music industry and is all set to travel back to her hometown, but at the last minute changes her ticket and flees to Okinawa instead. There, she finds unexpected solace in the Gama Gama Aquarium: an almost otherworldly underwater place that charms her so thoroughly she asks the young director, Kukuru, if she can stay and help the struggling business.
Disclaimer: I am writing this review in a landlocked city in the middle of winter, so if I start waxing poetic about the ocean, it’s beach-nostalgia peeking through. Bear with me.
The Aquatope on White Sand was my most-anticipated premiere this season, and it did not disappoint. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous and the character work is satisfyingly slow and steady, providing a couple of flashbacks and moments of narration but otherwise doing a lot of showing-not-telling. Fuka is deftly characterized within the first few minutes: poised and graceful yet one emotional injury away from completely curling into herself, graciously and smilingly bidding farewell to her idol kouhai and former managers but ending up in the airport looking drained.
Her mother, who is seemingly on vacation or a business trip in a far-flung country, offers some solace over the phone. But Fuka balks at the idea of going “home” to neighbors and relatives ready to console her about quitting the industry, and instead legs it impulsively to Okinawa. She isn’t stopped by any passers-by or recognised on the street, so we can presume that she’s achieved her fantasy of escaping to somewhere where she’s nobody, with no expectations over her head.
Meanwhile, though with less focus and screentime, we’re introduced effectively to Kukuru, an energetic teenaged girl who lives with her grandparents and has ended up in summer classes because she keeps writing about squid-raising when she should be doing math. She’s fun, and there are hints at a sadness and stubbornness swimming beneath her bubbling surface. Again, it’s subtle, coming across in dialogue, expressions, and visual framing. It sets up some intrigue as well as giving her some more depth, avoiding the trope of “the weird happy one helps the troubled sad one with their problems.”
These two girls don’t meet until the very tail end of the episode, and it’s the aquarium itself that brings them together. Gama Gama Aquarium has a sort of magical quality to it. It’s named after a natural cave system said to be the gateway between the human world and the underworld, as Kukuru tells Fuka. It certainly feels like a liminal space where anything is possible, simultaneously on land yet underwater, and it’s in this quiet blue darkness that Fuka finally finds a sense of unexpected peace. She’s soon swept up in a glorious visual metaphor that sees her floating free and letting some of the weight of her decision drop off her shoulders. This is a place of transformation, of safety, a few steps outside the rules and logic of the world outside.
Kukuru clearly holds the place dear to her heart, though we don’t know the deeper details of why yet. We can safely assume that this strange and beautiful place where fish may come to your emotional rescue is going to be the stage for their personal, and relationship, development to follow.
Aquatope is an original project, so where it goes from here is entirely up to speculation. This includes the direction the story will take regarding Fuka and Kukuru’s relationship. The trailer features some hand-holding and meaningful eye-gazing, and there is something grand and romantic about the imagery of the two young women reaching for each other while suspended underwater in a symbolic mirror to one another. They even almost, almost, get the Romeo + Juliet moment where they catch each other’s eye through a fish tank.
However, with no adaptation to look back to, I can’t make any promises on whether this will unfold into a romance or just be “yuri adjacent.” In any case, the show seems hinged on these two satisfyingly layered, nuanced female characters and the bond they’re going to form. There’s no fan service, no peering and leering camera, and no wacky jokes at the expense of anyone’s body in this premiere. The one point of contention I found was the brief introduction of a fortune teller character, who fits a few visual stereotypes (darker skin, colorful makeup, potentially “foreign and magical”) but otherwise this first episode was free of content considerations.
This setting feels like it was brought carefully to life, treated as a character as much as Fuka and Kukuru. You can feel the burn of the sun and then the cool of the aquarium’s interior. Schools of fish sway back and forth like a veil in the wind, revealing new possibilities beyond. In the distance, the ocean glitters like cellophane. I can’t help but feel a sense of hope and adventure at the close of this premiere, and I want to go to the beach so badly oh my god I’m so cold.